Washington, DC in a Day: Should You, Really?

In late September 2019, our family of five found ourselves in the Historic Triangle area of Virginia for a vacation steeped in American History. We were planning to visit Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown. We had never been to the area before, but when I was planning the trip, I realized that Washington, DC is only about a 2-1/2 hour drive from the Williamsburg area. How could we be that close to our nation’s capital for the first time and not go see it? So, we decided that we’d get up early one morning and drive into DC for a day trip. You can read an overview of the whole trip on my post, A Homeschool Mom’s Dream Trip! Williamsburg, Jamestown, & Yorktown, VA + Washington, DC.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “So, what’s the answer? Should we do DC in a day?” Honestly, that’s a question only you can answer for yourself. I’m going to share what our day was like with three teens/young adults and their middle-aged parents, and I hope it will help you decide whether you want to tackle DC in a day.

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Parking in DC

We got up early on a Friday morning and headed out before daybreak. The traffic really wasn’t bad at all. We weren’t worried about finding a parking space, because we had reserved and prepaid for one the night before using ParkWhiz. Driving into the city for the first time was so exciting! We caught glimpses of the Capitol and Washington Monument from the freeway, and we just couldn’t believe that we were actually in Washington, DC! Once we made our way down to the National Mall area, our parking garage was easy to find with the directions from ParkWhiz, and they even texted us to make sure everything went well. The elevator up from the parking garage landed us inside an office building. When we came out, we happily discovered that we were just a block or two from the Capitol! Contrary to what we had read online, parking in DC was really a breeze since we planned ahead.

Have a Plan

We knew there was no way we were going to see everything in Washington, DC, or even everything along the National Mall, in one day. We had picked out a handful of places that we deemed as “absolutely can’t miss” and a few more that were our “really don’t want to leave DC without seeing these, either” choices. At the top of our list were the Capitol, the White House, Library of Congress, National Archives, Lincoln Memorial, and Washington Monument. Next, were the Smithsonian museums-Air & Space, Natural History, and American History.

We quickly discovered that people are telling you the truth when they say that the National Mall is spread out! It would not have been possible to walk to all of our top of the list priorities first and still make it back to the museums before they closed. We decided to take a zig-zag approach and hit all of the places on our list, including the museums, as we came to them, starting at the Capitol, taking a detour off of the National Mall to see the White House, circling around to the Lincoln Memorial, and then back to the Washington Monument. Had we realized just how far we’d be walking, we would have used the DC Circulator more than the one time we used it at the end of the day. But, we were busy taking in the sights and didn’t realize what we had gotten ourselves into until our legs were about to give out!

The US Capitol

We had plenty of energy as we started our day at the US Capitol! Stopping for a few photos along the way, we followed the signs around until we found the area where we could enter for tours of the Capitol. (Hint: You don’t actually go into the Capitol building to start your tour. You go in through the Capitol Visitor Center located a good walking distance away, and then they will take you underground to the Capitol.) This long stroll was our first clue that we would be walking a lot that day! Luckily, the weather was really pleasant in late September.

PRO-TIP: Make sure you check out the website for prohibited items to save yourself some frustration…you can’t take food or water into the Capitol, folks! You will have to go through security at every building you enter, so travel light!

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, the Felkins family seems to have impeccable timing for tours, and this time was no different. We had failed to schedule a tour of the Capitol online, so we had to take our chances when we arrived. Initially, we were told that there were only four spots left in the tour that was leaving as we arrived, but we were grateful that they managed to find a spot for all five of us. This saved us a lot of time that we would have had to just wait around for the next tour to start. When you’re trying to see as much of Washington, DC in one day as you can, any time you can save is important!

I had never been on a tour just like this one before. In order to accommodate many groups at once, they use a headphone system. Everyone in our group had a set of headphones that was linked to our tour guide’s microphone. This made it so much easier to hear everything he was saying as we moved through the magnificent rooms of the Capitol! We visited the Crypt, the Rotunda, and the National Statuary Hall on this tour.

When the tour was over, we headed around to the west side of the Capitol for some more photos of the iconic structure. I know millions of people have stood in that same place, witnessing presidential inaugurations, marching for a cause, or just sightseeing, but it really does make you feel special to be able to experience it yourself. I kept finding myself turning back to snap another picture as we moved further away from it.

National Mall

Fun Fact: Did you know it is over 2 miles from the US Capitol building at the east end of the National Mall to the Lincoln Memorial at the west end? That doesn’t count all the distance walked inside the buildings or crisscrossing back and forth to each side to make sure you see everything you want to see. Have I mentioned that we walked a lot that day?!

We would have loved to visit each and every stop along the National Mall, but there is just not enough time to do that in one day. We really did miss quite a bit, but having our priority list helped us keep our focus on getting to the things that were a “must-see” for us.

Library of Congress

If you’ve been reading this blog, you probably already know that I’m a nerdy homeschool mom. Add to that the fact that I have a Ph.D. (translation: research is my jam), and it shouldn’t surprise you to know that I was beyond excited to visit the Library of Congress. I mean…the amount of knowledge that is housed there…can you just imagine?! I was slightly disappointed when I realized that we wouldn’t be able to go into the reading rooms as visitors, but if I ever go back, I will make sure to register as a researcher and spend some time there.

There were plenty of other things to see in the Library of Congress, so my disappointment didn’t last long. The sheer beauty of the Thomas Jefferson Building is astounding! Having the opportunity to peruse Mr. Jefferson’s personal library was a treat, as well.

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

Once we were satisfied with our time at the Library of Congress, it was lunchtime, and we were starving! The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was the next in line on our agenda, so we hurried over to find the cafe located inside. After grabbing an overpriced sandwich from a refrigerated help-yourself convenience store-type set-up, we were eager to see the exhibits of the museum. Now, remember, we were only in DC for one day, and everything indoors closes about 5:30 pm, so we really didn’t have time for a leisurely stroll. There were definitely things we would have spent longer doing if we had had the time. Even so, the Air and Space Museum was amazing! My poor Symphony was too worn out to enjoy it, though, so she had to sit and rest while the boys got a closer look at some of the exhibits.

National Archives Museum

Now, I don’t have photos to share of our next stop, other than the outside of the building, but it was one of the most important visits of the day. The opportunity to see the original documents of our nation’s formation was one that we approached with great reverence. It was worth the wait to enter the National Archives Museum. Understandably, they don’t allow any photos inside the building. They have to keep all the documents under low light for their historical preservation. What an honor it was to view the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights! Could the authors of those documents have had any idea how much of an impact they would have on the entire world?

Vrbo

Smithsonian Natural History and American History Museums

There were two more Smithsonian museums that we really wanted to see-the Natural History Museum and the American History Museum. Although we couldn’t fit every exhibit into our fast-paced day, we’re certainly glad that we didn’t skip these two iconic museums. I think my favorite exhibit was The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem at the American History Museum (of course, they don’t allow photos due to preservation).

The White House

By now, you’ve been reading for a while, and you must be thinking, “How did they fit anything else into that one day?” Well, there were still some “top priority” items on our list, and we weren’t leaving without seeing them! After the museums, we set out on foot to trek to the White House. Here’s where the reality of our day set in, and our legs began to fiercely complain. You see, we didn’t realize just how far the White House is from the National Mall. It doesn’t look that far on the map, and I’m quite sure that our aching feet made it seem that much further. If we had a do-over on this part, we would have used ride-share or some other motorized transportation to get there. Still, there were some interesting sites (and people) along the way.

Once we finally arrived at the White House, we were greeted with a scene that was quite different than what we had expected. First, the view was severely blocked by a construction area. It looked like they were repairing or replacing the fence. I know these things must be done, but it was disappointing. Next time, we’ll schedule far enough in advance to take a tour of the White House.

The other thing that made our time on Pennsylvania Avenue difficult was another visitor. Well, he looked more like he had taken up residence there, actually. His practice of free speech became continuously louder and more profane as we sat and rested on benches a little further down the sidewalk. Eventually, we just couldn’t sit there and listen to it anymore, so we had to force our legs to get moving again. It was definitely not the picturesque visit to the White House that we had envisioned. But, nonetheless, we can say that we have been there!

World War II Memorial

Heading back towards the National Mall, our next destination was meant to be the Lincoln Memorial. However, along the way, we came to the World War II Memorial and had to take a few moments to remember those who fought so bravely to restore freedom in a world overcome by tyranny.

Lincoln Memorial

As we left the World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial seemed to be so close, but it was still so far away! We followed the gorgeous Reflecting Pool towards the setting sun and eventually arrived at the solemn and magnificent monument. Although we were physically spent, it did not dampen the moment of pride as we climbed those steps at sunset to honor one of the greatest men in our country’s history.

The Washington Monument

When we were ready to leave the Lincoln Memorial, I assumed we were heading back to the car. I knew the Washington Monument was on our “must-do” list, but my tired body told my mind that seeing it from a distance all day was good enough.

My sweet Isaac had other ideas. We all love our country, but Isaac-he LOVES the USA! You couldn’t wipe the grin off that boy’s face all day long! He needed to actually touch the Washington Monument, and I wasn’t about to keep him from it.

Admitting our limitations at this point in the day, however, we spotted a bus stop for the DC Circulator behind the Lincoln Memorial and took a chance to see whether we had missed the last bus of the day. Thankfully, we had not! We were so relieved to climb on that bus and ride back to the Washington Monument. We still had a long walk (through the sprinklers, no less), but I have to say that seeing the smile on my son’s face was absolutely worth it!

A Personal Victory

By the time we were ready to leave the Washington Monument, the buses were no longer running. This meant we had to force ourselves to walk another mile back to the parking garage. In hindsight, I guess we could have called a ride, but walking through our nation’s capital city at night was truly breathtaking! Only when we finally reached the car, and I literally had to put every bit of willpower I could muster into climbing up into the seat did the gravity of what I had just accomplished resonate in my heart.

You see, only a year prior to this, there is no way I could have even gone on this trip, much less walked over 27.000 steps in a single day. Sixteen months before, I had brain surgery to remove a tumor. Then, a medication I was given exacerbated another condition that I’ve been dealing with for a few years, aplastic anemia (bone marrow failure), and I was facing a probable bone marrow transplant. By the grace of God, I improved without the transplant, and my bone marrow is currently at a stable level. I’m still dealing with symptoms from the surgery. Healing from brain surgery isn’t measured in days and weeks. It’s measured in months and years. You have to find a new normal. But this day in Washington, DC proved to me that I can do big things again. I can’t do them every day, mind you, but I can live a full and rewarding life. This was a personal victory for me!

Final Thoughts on DC in a Day

If you’re still reading, you’ve come on quite a journey with me to find out whether I recommend doing Washington, DC in a day! Well, here’s what I think…

I would absolutely love to go back and plan to spend several days in Washington, DC. However, if I was in the same boat again-having never been before, only having one day available, and being within driving distance, I would certainly do it again! It was a whirlwind of a day, and, honestly, I’ve taken more time to put this post together than we spent in Washington, DC. But, I made a lifelong memory with my family. And that, my friends, is what it’s all about!

PRO-TIP: Build in some time for rest after a day like this! We made the 2-1/2 hour drive back to Williamsburg and spent the next day resting at our condo. As I’ve mentioned before, my family is much more pleasant when we’ve had our rest!

Want to find out about the rest of our American History trip? Be sure to check out our posts on Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown!

So what do you think? Would you try to do Washington, DC in a day?

I love to share my passion for family, faith, learning, and adventure! I am a worship pastor's wife, a homeschool mom to three teens (well, one has graduated), a former public school teacher and counselor, and a Ph.D. in educational psychology. At our church, I serve on the worship team and as the Fine Arts coordinator, helping students to discover, develop, and deploy their God-given gifts. I'm so excited for you to follow along on this joyous journey!

Comments

  1. KristieReply

    Wow…that’s an ambitious, but doable, itinerary! Our kids get to go to DC through trips sponsored by the school. Those tours are an awesome way to pack in a lot in a short amount of time. So great that you can use ParkWhiz and other apps to reserve parking now. So much of the stress is in finding a place to park!

    • Melissa FReply

      Yes, ParkWhiz made it so easy! That’s awesome that your kids get to go to DC through school-sponsored trips! We homeschool, so I guess, technically, our kids got to go on a school-sponsored trip, too! 🙂

  2. Erin RobertsonReply

    Thanks for the great tour! We’re on a yearlong world trip and our younger son has been saying that when we get back to the US he really wants to visit DC. I mean, we’ve seen lots of cool museums in other places, why haven’t we seen some of the best museums in our own country?? I think he has a point. We live in Colorado, so, like you, we try to pack a lot into an East Coast trip. I’ve only spent an afternoon in DC when we were visiting family in Baltimore, just saw a little of the National Botanical Garden and a bit of the Air and Space museum, so it would mostly be new to me, too. Congratulations, also, on your ongoing recovery, and for having the courage to try more big things!

    • Melissa FReply

      A yearlong world trip sounds amazing! I would love to do that with my family! Thank you for the kind words. It’s been a long road, but I’m so thankful that I’ve come so far.

  3. Katy EmanuelReply

    Parkwhiz sounds like an interesting concept. I wonder if this is available in other cities. I didn’t realize things were so spread out there. The Library of Congress would be an amazing thing to see. I know my kids would love the Smithsonian Air and Space museum, I would imagine you could probably spend a whole day there. The Smithsonian Natural History museum has been on my bucket list for a while, so maybe one day we will make it there. Looks like you had a very busy day, honestly I don’t know how you manage to fit all of that in.

    • Melissa FReply

      ParkWhiz is actually available in several major US cities! As for DC…yes, you could definitely spend a day each in several of the museums alone. It was a pretty crazy day, but I’m glad we did it!

  4. CindyReply

    D.C. in a day is impossible but you can see a lot and likely see just enough that you will need to go back. We have spent a week there and didn’t see enough and have now been back twice and still haven’t seen everything we would like to. It’s one of my favorite places.

    • Melissa FReply

      We definitely want to go back and spend more time there!

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